# Believing in non-existent beings

I'm inspired by this comment.

Let's say "Supernatural beings are dependent on people believing they are real."

Before they are born into existence, how can people believe they are real?

## How can they exist if no one even knows that "something" specific might exist?

I've come up with the notion that they come from supernatural dimension where they have a lot of believers, but none here. Thus they haunt people with the little power they have left to make them believe they exist.

But what if such a being gives rise to belief in something else (other than itself)? For example, if a fire-wielding spirit burns a piece of paper, witnesses might start believing there is an ash spirit, thus giving sustenance to a new spirit, but giving no benefit to the fire spirit that actually caused the phenomenon.

• Have you read any Diskworld novels? Like, Hogfather (or just catch the movie)? – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 6:46
• It covers the idea in some detail, as a major plot point. New dieties are popping into existance: “The Unseen University was plagued by a plethora of household gods in Hogfather when a surfeit of belief caused by the Hogfather's absence led to their uncontrolled random generation.” see the section on “small gods” in the noted page, and several links within that summary. – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 6:55
• Someone who’s more familiar with the various novels should post the small gods lifecycle as an Answer, with examples. Several different scenareos for initiating belief were shown in the Hogfather movie, including just wondering why there was a god of wine but no god of hangovers. – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 6:58
• @JDługosz he isn't god of hangovers, he's "Oh god" of hangovers. – M i ech Apr 17 '17 at 10:20
• How precise does the belief have to be? Two billion Christians on Earth and I've never met two who believe in quite the same god. I hear it's similar for Muslims. – Asher Apr 17 '17 at 17:17

"There's no point believing in things that exist" - Terry Pratchett.

Belief has always come first. Humans believe in all kinds of things that don't exist, then they act as if they did exist. We seem to be hard-wired to paint agency onto the world where none exists, a tendency that has led to all manner of superstitions and religions.

A lonely shepherd searching for a lost lamb stumbles and falls down a slope, and winds up landing right next to the lamb he was seeking; this can't be just a coincidence, he thinks, and remembers the spot as special. Belief has begun. He starts going there first when he's lost a sheep, and becasue there's a convenient water source there, he keeps finding them. Other shepherds do the same. Before long, the cult of the Sheep God has started.

A silent monster stalks the darkness outside the village. People who leave the circle of safety in the night do not return. The local wise man blames the town drunk, who is driven out into the darkness. The leopard has learned that it can get an easy meal from the human village, and the wise man has learned he can get rid of troublemakers. The cult of the Leopard God has started.

The followers of a rabble-rousing mystic are bereft, wondering what to do after their leader has been executed. They comfort one another telling stories about the wonderful things he did, and was going to do. They make excuses - he has transcended the mortal plane! The Living Force needed him to return! He's not really dead, because he cannot be killed! He was struck down, and has become more powerful than you can possibly imagine! And the Cult of the Force Ghost enters a new phase.

The novel Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, goes into a lot of detail about the growth of gods from belief. It describes 'gods' as being the tiny, unheard spirits of tiny things, like the place where two ant trails cross, or the micro-climate beneath two leaves, which are always craving human belief. With human belief, they gain power, and as they gain power they grow to become true gods. It's a fascinating metaphor for the development of religion in our world.

• I love that quote. Along with the similar one about witches and gods. "Witches don't believe in gods. Witches know the gods exist, it's like believing in the milkman." – Draco18s Apr 17 '17 at 17:09
• @Draco18s: Except that (in the US, at least) milkmen (milkpersons?) no longer exist. – jamesqf Apr 17 '17 at 17:44
• Its true, they don't. But in the setting of Discworld they still do. And that's all that's important. It's not like the Summoning Dark needs to exist in the real world too in order to be afraid of it. It'd be like Candle Jack, wouldn't-- – Draco18s Apr 17 '17 at 17:46
• @jamesqf. I live in the US and have milk delivered to my doorstep by a milkman once a week from a creamery. I think there is a resurgence. – Mad Physicist Apr 17 '17 at 20:45
• @Bob Jarvis: This is an example of causative belief in action. Enough people in Mad Physicist's vicinity started believing in those hitherto mythical milkpersons, which caused them to exist :-) – jamesqf Apr 18 '17 at 18:23

Look at the real world. We have stories about werewolves, vampires, zombies, yeti, leprachauns and hundreds of other beings that don't actually exist. If things start existing because people believe in them, all of them would have been around by now.

What usually happens with these creatures, at least earlier in history, is that people encounter something they don't understand and then make up stories about what caused it. They then tell these stories, which will propagate, and at some point lose their connection to the original cause and start a life of their own.

Around there is probably where, in your world, those things would really spring to life.

• "don't actually exist" Source please? ;) – SethWhite Apr 17 '17 at 14:13
• They then tell these stories, which will propagate, and at some point lose their connection to the original cause and start a life of their own ...And there you have it.....belief made something manifest. Just because it may not actually exist does not mean it can still have effects as if it did exist. At that point, what is the difference? – Eric Apr 17 '17 at 18:21

Let's say that it is about belief.

Some people believe that any god exists and may help them - and some people do not believe that any god exists. And some people may accept that any god exists - but they do not believe that it may help them.

For the first group of people god exists and miracles are evidence of god's being - and nothing can prove they are wrong (in case of god does not exist).

For the third group of people god exists too - but they mostly want scientific evidence of god's being (and then, god is probably decreased into sufficiently advanced alien).

For the second group god does not exists - and nothing can prove they are wrong (in case of god exists).

Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack/Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence ... and similar, like you wish.

Accidents happen!

One answer is always that the act of believing causes them to exist, in which case they exist in your mind and in realty in the same moment.

Another interesting option could be that belief is a precursor to existence. A person can believe in a supernatural entity that does not actually exist, but a supernatural being cannot exist without a person believing in them. In logic notation, it's written slightly backwards: existence->belief. If a supernatural being exists, it implies they are believed in.

In this way, people can believe in all sorts of things. They can even change their mind. However, while they're believing in it, a door is opened. A supernatural being may come into existence within this belief and begin to try to encourage more belief in it.

This also opens doors for lesser beliefs which aren't so pointed. A person may not believe in the boogie man, but that person does believe something went bump last night. Maybe that's enough to just barely permit the boogie man to subsist until it can acquire some true believers.

This also would create a rich fabric for the creation of new and unpredictable supernatural entities. Human beings have a strong tendency to believe that there is more out there in the world than meets the eye. This is especially true in children. This broadband awareness of "something else" may be fed upon by all supernatural.

• If I say I don't believe in the boogie man, that implies that I know what a boogie man is, and have a concept in mind. What if it's not necessarily completely about belief, but also about how many people think of you--have you as a concept in their minds. I might not BELIEVE that werewolves exist, but I know what they are. Everyone knows what they are right? And they draw on that collective picture as well as belief. – Erin Thursby Apr 17 '17 at 16:54
• @ErinThursby It's a good direction, other than that we know that can't be how it works because otherwise the supernatural world would be crammed full of purple elephants and nobody would be able to move ;-) Joking aside, I think a lot of really interesting messages come out of that twist. You can't kill a demon if you try. You have to weaken it to the point where you no longer feel obliged to watch it, and then let fate take over from there. – Cort Ammon Apr 17 '17 at 17:08
• This answer, taken to the limit: read Greg Egan's Distress. – nigel222 Apr 18 '17 at 8:36

You have your gods coming from somewhere, where they already exist because of belief and then infecting our world and creating belief in order to exist more strongly here.

That's not a bad model. It means that gods are "conquering" one multiverse at a time.

But there is an issue. Where did they come from the first time? That is how did they originally become in their original universe?

Simple. They are simply unformed energy until someone thinks of them as a concept.

And then they become. Slowly, over centuries, as they collect believers, they become more powerful and defined.

People come up with stories to explain everything. And those stories are how gods are born. But gods aren't generally born all at once--it takes an accumulation of belief.

EDIT: It might not be all about belief. Cort Ammon's answer sparked another possibility.

If I say I don't believe in the boogie man, that implies that I know what a boogie man is, and have a concept in mind. What if it's not necessarily completely about belief, but also about how many people think of you--have you as a concept in their minds. I might not BELIEVE that werewolves exist, but I know what they are. Everyone knows what they are right? And they draw on that collective picture as well as belief.

Like everyone is saying, you need to read some Terry Pratchett. Hogfather, and Small Gods are a good place to start.

• I'm reminded of the Larry Niven story "The Nonesuch" (from the short story collection "Convergent Series") about a telepathic predator on a far-off alien world. The new telepathic predator on the block can't quite figure out why the locals avoid attacking humans, expecially when they look so gosh-darned tasty. So he tries it...with comical results. – Bob Jarvis Apr 18 '17 at 12:00

People make up explanations for things they don't understand. How does the sun move across the sky? A dude pulls it across in a chariot. Wait no like a really buff dude throws it across the sky so fast that it cools off and becomes the moon in 12 hours. People repeat that a dude pulls the sun across the sky with his chariot and no one mentions the really buff baseball pitcher because that explanations sounds just a bit more dumb than the other one.

People make up shit all the time and then justify it. It's part of our psychology. I recommend looking at recent religion to get a more real world idea of how this works. I'd start with Mormonism. I'm not saying religion is fake, I'm just saying that it lacks any real definitive testable evidence. The question seems to be how does this sort of shit get started. We have recent historical examples of exactly this happening.

The implication of a setting where supernatural entities are created by the belief of mortals is that it is mortals who wield that power unknowingly, and as such they create the supernatural entities they need.

These creatures would need no origin prior to being conjured by the combined belief of mortals, and since they are built from the expectations of said mortals, it is possible for them to come into being with existing personalities, knowledge and ideas.

As others have pointed out, the process works like this:

1. A mortal experiences something beyond its understanding, like a thunderstorm.
2. It tries to explain it with terms it understands, for example, that a giant is causing the noise with a tool.
3. The "giant" and its "tool" takes shape as versions of things the mortal knows, like say, a big powerful man wielding a special hammer.
4. The mortal further imagines what the motivations, personality or name of said giant might be.
5. The mortal tells of its idea to others, and with time the idea propagates and evolves, until it is accepted knowledge.
6. This process gives birth, in the setting, to a new deity, who is created with all the knowledge, abilities and other properties that the mortals have dreamed up for it, up to and including the idea that it might be eternal and even predate the mortals that conjured it up.

This setting would present interesting storytelling opportunities, for example if mortals manage to understand the process and use it for their purposes (enter religious leaders shaping belief, just like in the real world many religious leaders are the only ones allowed to interpret holy scripture), or more interestingly yet, the identity crisis when a powerful deity discovers its true nature as a dream conjured up by mortals.

• In a manga Noragami the said god is fearing of him disappearing from the world, because there is only one person "believes" in him. Interesting when the mortal takes their belief hostage against the god. – Vylix Apr 18 '17 at 15:55

They can exist as mathematical structures.

The definition of "existence" is a little bit blurry here, and long philosophical discussions could be based on it.

But, for example, the sine function existed even before it was first written by a mathematician. It is an objective thing.

• God exists at least in this sense. – Gray Sheep Apr 17 '17 at 17:31

In the real world there are actually things that exist, based only on people's beliefs, it's called the tinkebell effect. For example the value of money (or a share in a company): If everyone believes that the US Dollar has value then it does, otherwise, if everybody thought it was worthless, they wouldn't trade dollars for goods and services, and all your money would be worthless.